on April 5, 2000
SUMMARY OF THIS DISCUSSION
We present this summary so that those who may not have been following the
discussion can get a flavor of what happened there. We urge you to go to
the archive of the whole event, which will remain on the site. You can read
the messages, and follow up with the individual contributors by email from
the LSC-Net site, and see what resources and practices were recommended. We
would like to thank all who participated, and especially those who
LSC-Net is very grateful to Paul Black for taking part and stimulating this
The discussion began with a focus on good questions that can support
students' conceptual growth, and their facility in evaluating their learning
and their products:
"Where can we find, or how can we develop, questions that explore students'
understanding of the concepts and methods of science? Can we share good
examples, sources, and useful ideas to help us invent and evaluate such
questions? Who has gotten their pupils to develop the skills and habits of
self-assessment? How can peer assessment be encouraged, and how is it best
As participants considered different aspects of the topic, new challenges
and contexts brought out new questions:
"A long-range goal of our project is to develop assessments for the new
curriculum modules that assess students' understanding of important science
concepts as well as their ability to apply themStanding in the shadows of
high-stakes, state testing, we too are concerned about how to encourage our
faculty to move from traditional assessments which emphasize memorization to
assessments that measure student learning and understanding of science
concepts. What kind of support and encouragement must we provide?"
"How do we engage teachers in meaningful discussion and activities that
support the need for a change in assessment practices?"
"How does formative assessment practices enable both the teacher and
student to decide on next steps?"
"How do we really know what students are thinking and understanding?"
"Many of our teachers, especially those at the middle school level, remain
focused on content based assessment even though they understand and
recognize the importance of assessing students' understanding of concepts
and methodology. The big challenge for professional developers is to assist
teachers in finding structures that will bring change in assessment
Many of the responses focused on two broad themes: the search for good
questions, and factors that support the growth of a reflective culture in
which a formative assessment of student understanding is a central feature
of the classroom for both teachers and students.
----A. Learning about good questions---
Paul Black has emphasized the importance of good questions -- how to
recognize them, how to use them:
"what is needed are good questions, i.e. questions which encourage pupils
to write and/or talk at some length, and questions which bear upon important
procedural and conceptual aspects of learning. here teachers can help by
sharing good questions, and discussing why they are good so we can all help
develop ideas about quality."
One discussant asked: " I am curious to know if any projects have designed
specific structures for teachers to develop questions in a collaborative
context. How did you set these up (protocols?), how often did the groups
meet?, and how did they "test" and refine the questions they developed? How
do teachers report and get feedback about the questioning and dialogues they
engage in with the students in their classrooms?
In response, Paul Black told of a process using "question stems," very
basic questions that both model and generate fruitful questions and
thoughtful discussions in the classroom. He also provided a full list of
examples of these question stems.
One participant tried this approach right away.
---B. Cultural changes in the classroom, school and district---
The discussion exposed the tip of an ice-berg: the use of good questions
and reflective practice to build a formative, learning environment in the
science or mathematics classroom may require changes in the culture of the
classroom, the school, and even the district. The goals of the classroom
may need to be reconsidered or cast in a new light, and new ways of teacher
collaboration and program evaluation may be needed to support the growth of
this learning culture, in which faculty reflection supports teacher
reflection, with the aim of fostering student thought and understanding of
content -- deep learning.
" Besides questioning, there are other challenges pre-service students
face, such as facilitating meaningful, equitable "science talks" with
children. In my opinion, it's the most demanding part of the science
meeting. In addition to use appropriate social behaviors, it's challenging
to get children to interpret data and use the evidence to formulate a
conclusion, to explain, to identify a pattern or relationship, to
self-assess what they know or don't know."
Some messages described experiments with teacher learning -- modeling and
exploring the teachers the pedagogy that we would like to see in the
classroom. The sense of teaching as a learning process comes through
" Since the conference I have been experimenting with comments on journal
reflections that are turned in to me as part of a class that I am
teaching.My challenge has been to use the comments I write to push the
teachers thinking to the next level, or to encourage the teachers to
reflect in a more meaningful way. I like the idea of jumping in and finding
out how to make this work, but am still struggling with what makes a
meaningful comment that will make a difference in a student's thinking."
"We have shifted the focus of reflection meetings to "What do students
understand, and how do you know?" It has restored teachers' confidence in
using observation and questions to make judgments of student performance,
rather than relying solely on objective measures. The group meetings and
reflection on student work are essential in developing this confidence
these judgments need to become more consistent across teachers, and need to
be a "theory" subject to revision as the teacher makes more observations."
" During our early workwe discovered that teachers believed they were
implementing the program when they taught the lessons using the materials,
but observation showed that often they unintentionally changed an inquiry
task providing a high level of cognitive challenge into a routine procedural
task with a low level of challenge. A consultant helped us change this
culture in several ways. First, she taught teachers a process for reflecting
focused on examining student understanding, whether teacher questions kept
the cognitive demands high, and posing what questions would have kept the
inquiry at a high level. She then recruited some of the veteran risk takers
to allow her to video their lessons and lead a similar reflection
processwith the consultants' help, they established a practice of asking
teachers to keep a reflective journal of the lessons they taught, and
bringing the journal and samples of student work to their meetings. Our
teacher-leaders have kept up this routine, using department meetings every
other week to reflect together on videos, journals and student work, along
with alignment, pacing and other issues that come before the group."
"Now in our 5th year, the program requires all 2,600 K-6 teachers from the
districts' 64elementary sites to turn in at least 1 embedded assessment
packet from one FOSS module. One of the most profound outcomes has been the
ability of teachers to recognize student learning by examining extensively
other student work. "
"To understand what and how their students are learning, pre-service
teachers collect assessment information from two children with different
abilities. They use a wide range of assessment methods At the end of the
investigation, they interpret all of the collected information, explain in
writing how their students thinking has changed (or not changed), and
propose next steps in teaching and learning. "
Paul addressed this thread in the discussion. Many of the relevant points
had already been made in his talk to the January conference (which you can
see on the site under the "Conference" area). However, there is much more
to be said. Paul emphasized "the importance of thinking reflectively about
children's responses - to see through them to what they might tell you about
the children's thinking", and offered some practice comments:
"The title "Cultural Change" is very appropriate - I've found elsewhere
that teachers may say, and believe, that they are adopting an innovation
when in fact they are assimilating superficial aspects only and changing
nothing. For some primary teachers, formative dialogue and feedback are
social functions, not cognitive or learning functions. We have found it
very important to ask teachers to keep a journal: those that do take on
change often do not realise how much they are changing.facilitating
"science talks" is a most difficult and rewarding part of the work. My
experience has been that pupils need to try doing it, and be supported as
they do it badly at first, before some clarity and fluency develops. Here,
as elsewhere, peer assessment might help : pupils might be asked to assess a
talk, maybe working in small groups, and present and compare their
assessments. This helps all to develop criteria of quality
I would suggest you put no marks or grades on the work, but for each one
make comments which will help the pupil to understand what needs doing to
improve the work. One or two things is better than many, and things the
pupils can be expected to take action on are the ones that might help.
However, if this is a big change from normal practice, it will have to be
explained carefully first: many pupils love having grades to compare, and
may feel cheated, as might their parents. You'll have to get them to see
that comparing grades doesn't actually help them to learn something from
The goal is to enable "reflection after the event which give a teacher that
personal feedback without which (like the pupils) one cannot learn."